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An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

By William Godwin



Oaths of office and duty -- Their absurdity -- Their immoral consequences. -- Oaths of evidence less atrocious. -- Opinion of the liberal and resolved respecting them. -- Their essential features: Contempt of veracity -- False morality. -- Their particular structure -- Abstract principles assumed by them to be true -- Their inconsistency with these principles.
{631} The same arguments that prove the injustice of tests, may be applied universally to all oaths of duty and office. If I entered upon the office without an oath, what would be my duty? Can the oath that is imposed upon me make any alteration in my duty? If not, does not the very act of imposing it, by implication assert a falshood? Will this falshood, the assertion that a direct engagement has a tendency to create a duty, have no injurious effect upon a majority of the persons concerned? What is the true criterion that I shall faithfully discharge the office that is conferred upon me? Surely my past life, and not any protestations I may be compelled to make. If my life have {632} been unimpeachable, this compulsion is an unmerited insult; if it have been otherwise, it is something worse.

It is with no common disapprobation that we recollect the prostitution of oaths which marks the history of modern European countries, and particularly of our own. This is one of the means that government employs to discharge itself of its proper functions, by making each man security for himself. It is one of the means that legislators have provided to cover the inefficiency and absurdity of their regulations, by making individuals promise the execution of that which the police is not able to execute. It holds out in one hand the temptation to do wrong, and in the other the obligation imposed not to be influenced by that temptation. It compels a man to engage not only for his own conduct, but for that of all his dependents. It obliges certain officers (churchwardens in particular) to promise an inspection beyond the limits of human faculties, and to engage for a proceeding on the part of those under their jurisdiction, which they neither intend nor are expected to inforce. Will it be believed in after ages that every considerable trader in exciseable articles in this country is induced by the constitution of its government to reconcile his mind to the guilt of perjury, as to the condition upon which he is accustomed to exercise his profession?

There remains only one species of oaths to be considered, which have found their advocates among persons sufficiently enlightened {633} to reject every other species of oath, I mean, oaths administered to a witness in a court of justice. These are certainly free from many of the objections that apply to oaths of fidelity, duty or office. They do not call upon a man to declare his assent to a certain proposition which the legislator has prepared for his acceptance; they only require him solemnly to pledge himself to the truth of assertions, dictated by his own apprehension of things, and expressed in his own words. They do not require him to engage for something future, and of consequence to shut up his mind against farther information as to what his conduct in that future ought to be; but merely to pledge his veracity to the apprehended order of things past.

These considerations palliate the evil, but do not convert it into good. Wherever men of uncommon energy and dignity of mind have existed, they have felt the degradation of binding their assertions with an oath. The English constitution recognises in a partial and imperfect manner the force of this principle, and therefore provides that, while the common herd of mankind shall be obliged to swear to the truth, nothing more shall be required from the order of nobles than a declaration upon honour. Will reason justify this distinction?

Can there be a practice more pregnant with false morality than that of administering oaths in a court of justice? The language it expressly holds is, 'You are not to be believed upon your mere {624} word;' and there are few men firm enough resolutely to preserve themselves from contamination, when they are accustomed upon the most solemn occasions to be treated with contempt. To the unthinking it comes like a plenary indulgence to the occasional tampering with veracity in affairs of daily occurrence, that they are not upon their oath; and we may confirm without risk of error, that there is no cause of insincerity, prevarication and falshood more powerful, than the practice of administering oaths in a court of justice. It treats veracity in the affairs of common life as a thing unworthy to be regarded. It takes for granted that no man, at least no man of plebian rank, is to be credited upon his bare affirmation; and what it takes for granted it has an irresistible tendency to produce.

Add to this a feature that runs through all the abuses of political institution, it inverts the eternal principles of morality. Why is it that I am bound to be more especially careful of what I affirm in a court of justice? Because the subsistence, the honest reputation or the life of a fellow man may be materially affected by it. All these genuine motives are by the contrivance of human institution thrown into shade, and we are expected to speak the truth, only because government demands it of us upon oath, and at the times in which government has thought proper or recollected to administer this oath. All attempts to strengthen the obligations of morality by fictitious and spurious motives, will in the sequel be found to have no tendency but to relax them.

{635} Men will never act with that liberal justice and conscious integrity which is their highest ornament, till they come to understand what men are. He that contaminates his lips with an oath, must have been thoroughly fortified with previous moral instruction if he be able afterwards to understand the beauty of an easy and simple integrity. If our political institutors had been but half so judicious in perceiving the manner in which excellence and worth were to be generated, as they have been ingenious and indefatigable in the means of depraving mankind, the world, instead of a slaughter house, would have been a paradise.

Let us leave for a moment the general consideration of the principle of oaths, to reflect upon their particular structure and the precise meaning of the term. They take for granted in the first place the existence of an invisible governor of the world, and the propriety of our addressing petitions to him, both which a man may deny, and yet continue a good member of society. What is the situation in which the institution of which we treat places this man? But we must not suffer ourselves to be stopped by trivial considerations. -- Oaths are also so constructed as to take for granted the religious system of the country whatever it may happen to be.

Now what are the words with which we are taught in this instance to address the creator of the universe? 'So help me God, and the contents of his holy word.' It is the language of imprecation. {636} I pray him to pour down his everlasting wrath and curse upon me, if I utter a lie. -- It were to be wished that the name of that man were recorded, who first invented this mode of binding men to veracity. He had surely himself but very light and contemptuous notions of the Supreme Being, who could thus tempt men to insult him, by braving his justice. If it be our duty to invoke his blessing, yet there must surely be something insupportably profane in wantonly and unnecessarily putting all that he is able to inflict upon us upon conditions.